The issue this paper will address is whether, and to what extent, journalism has a significant causal impact on the nature and practice of politics. This question is important because one central purpose of journalism is to inform the public about what is going on in the world. If it completely failed to influence, in a specifically causal way, the way that people think about issues—especially political issues—then it would mean that journalism is failing in one of its central functions. There are three reasons to believe that journalism has a causal effect on politics. The first is that it makes voters and citizens more aware of current events than they would otherwise be. The second is that journalism provides background information on politicians involved in elections. Finally, politicians can use journalism to convey their ideas to the public in order to gain their support.
The first reason for thinking that journalism causally affects politics is that it helps potential voters and other citizens to be more aware of current events than they would otherwise be. Most people, indeed, get most of their information and knowledge about politics from television news, print news, and online news sources. The information that they consume from media sources then causally influences their voting behavior, as well as their other political behavior (such as calling or writing to a state senator). There are direct causal links here: The first cause is the fact that journalists make available information about politics and other topics in their publications and broadcasts; the effect of this is that people learn information about politics from these media sources. The second cause is that people’s information about politics that they get from journalists to make their voting and other political behavior choices. Since causation is transitive, it follows that journalists causally influence politics (Nicholson 2003).
The second reason for thinking that there is a causal connection between journalism and politics is that journalism provides voters and other citizens with background information on candidates for office. Again, voters learn most of what they know about politics from media sources the information contained in which are provided by journalists. Here we have a single causal connection. The information that journalists make available through media outlets of the various forms causes voters to obtain information they would otherwise lack—information about which candidates hold which views, which have been involved in scandal or other controversy, and so forth (Prinz 1995).
The third reason for believing that there is a causal connection between the efforts of journalists and politics is that politicians are able to advertise their policies, goals, and sympathies to the public. In this case too, the media is the primary—in many cases the only—source of information the public has on such matters. The causal interaction in this case, however, is somewhat indirect. The politicians’ use of journalism to advertise their views causes the public to become informed on such views. And this state of affairs then causal political maintenance or change through the citizens’ voting and other political behavior. The principle that causation is transitive again applies. It follows that journalism indirectly causally affects politics.
A counterargument to what has been said here thus far is that there are two reasons for thinking that journalism does not in fact causally influence politics. One is that the media are often inaccurate. There are various reasons for this: sloppiness, laziness, lack of objectivity, influence by outside sources. But what matters for present purposes is not the reasons for the inaccuracy, but the very fact that the inaccuracy exists (Kovach and Rosenstiel 2007). Another reason to doubt that journalism causally influences politics is that people do not simply take what they hear, see, or read at face value. They interpret it and try to integrate it with other things that they believe and know. Therefore it is incorrect to say that politics causally influences politics.
Each of the points that this objection relies upon is correct. It is true that journalism is sometimes, perhaps even often, inaccurate. And it is true that people are not simply cognitive sponges that absorb every piece of information, or each assertion, that it comes into contact with. However, neither of these points counts against the thesis of this paper. The thesis, after all, is not that journalism causally impacts politics by virtue of correctly informing people on all issues. The claim is simply that it has a causal influence. Likewise, the claim here is not that what they learn from the media is the only information that people take on board, and use to influence their voting and other political behavior. The claim is only that journalism is one source of influence over politics. Nothing in the current objection throws any of that into question.
In conclusion, it has been argued that there are three reasons for thinking that journalism exerts a causal influence upon politics. The first is that the media enables citizens to become more informed than they would otherwise be about political issues and topics. The second is that journalism is able to provide background information on the candidates’ views that is not easily available by other means. Finally, journalism has a causal effect on politics because politicians use it, at least in part, to inform potential voters and other citizens about their views on issues, their levels of experience and other qualifications, and so forth. The conclusion of the paper is that there is indeed good reason for supposing that journalism has a causal effect on politics.
- Kovach, Bill, and Tom Rosenstiel. The elements of journalism: What newspeople should know and the public should expect. Three Rivers Press (CA), 2007.
- Nicholson, Stephen P. “The political environment and ballot proposition awareness.” American Journal of Political Science 47.3 (2003): 403-410.
- Prinz, Timothy S. “Media markets and candidate awareness in house elections, 1978–1990.” Political Communication 12.3 (1995): 305-325.